Parole changes helping to lower Iowa prison population

Strategy helps maintain prison safety, frees up resources to deal with high-risk offenders

A smarter and more aggressive approach to parole is reducing Iowa’s prison population, corrections officials told lawmakers -- but there is a limit on how many of the state’s 8,170 inmates can be released.

“There will come a point where we can’t go any lower,” Jason Carlstrom, chairman of the Iowa Board of Parole, told the Iowa House-Senate Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee Tuesday. “We’re not there yet.”

The board increased the number of parolees by nearly 24 percent from fiscal 2011 to 2012, and is on track to exceed the 4,015 paroles last year, he said.

That has helped reduce the prison population by about 800 inmates and stabilized the community-based corrections population between 30,000 and 31,000, Department of Corrections Director John Baldwin said.

The department also will continue to make “data-driven” decisions to release low-risk probationers and parolees to free up resources to provide the best supervision and treatment for high-risk offenders, he said. That includes substance abuse treatment, vocational education GED classes, behavioral programs, drug courts and mental health courts that “are a sound investment for taxpayers,” Baldwin said.

The combined strategies of Corrections and the parole board maintain public safety while respecting the interests of victims, Carlstrom and Baldwin said.

It also helps the prison staff feel safer, Baldwin said. He noted that prison populations were increasing when Corrections took a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut in 2009. It peaked at nearly 9,000. As inmate numbers have dropped, he has been able to begin to replace staff. This is the first fiscal year since 2008 the department has not lost staff, Baldwin said.

Lowering prison population is not the goal, but part of a strategy to free up resources to provide the best supervision and treatment for high-risk offenders, Baldwin and Carlstrom said.

“Our job is not to just lower prison population,” Carlstrom said. “That would be easy -- just open the door.”

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